Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Published By: Doubleday
Publication Date: April 18, 2017
Page Count: 320
Source: Library
Adult - Nonfiction

Somehow in all of my studies for my degree in history I never heard about the Osage murders. I recently read Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham (which I LOVED - feel free to check out my review) which mentioned the Osage tribe and its headrights. I wanted to know more and a quick google search put this book on my radar. I decided it would be a good place to start learning more about the tribe.

The Osage reservation is located in Oklahoma, but historically the tribe was spread through much of the Great Plains in the present-day states of Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Like so many tribal groups, the Osage were forced off their land by white settlers (including Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family) and had to seek refuge in Indian Territory, located in the present day state of Oklahoma. The tribe purchased land from the Cherokee nation in an area they believed to be useless to the whites. The Chief at the time hoped this would keep the white settlers from attacking his people and taking their lands once again. Little did he know that the reservation was located on some of the best oil fields in the United States. In addition, legislation such as the Dawes Act would greatly impact the land holdings of the Osage.

Once the oil was discovered, the Osage Chief negotiated underground reservation rights with the US government in order to be sure that his people benefited from the discovery. Each member of the tribe would receive a headright based on the mineral rights of the land. Oil production brought vast wealth to the Osage, but this would attract unsavory and corrupt people to walk among the Natives. These people were often whites who were seeking ways to increase their own fortune at the expense of the Osage. A guardianship system made it illegal for the Osage to manage their own funds. A white guardian was appointed to each tribal member who had a headright; these guardians decided how the money could be spent and when. In some cases, the corruption of the guardians had devastating consequences. One example in the book discusses a woman with a sick child who cannot afford to get medical treatment even though she was wealthy because her guardian denied her request for funds. Her child ended up dying as a result. The guardianship process made me both angry and heartbroken. So many innocents lives were impacted by malicious greed.

The book largely focuses on the mysterious deaths within one family. Mollie Burkhart's family members have been systematically killed off one by one, but nobody seems to know the identity of the culprit. Those who try to intervene on behalf of the Osage are often met with threats or violence, but Mollie needs answers. She has to know why one sister was shot and another was in her home when a bomb exploded. It's also not just Mollie's family that is dealing with death and tragedy. Almost every Osage family has one or more family members that have died under mysterious circumstances. It doesn't appear that anyone in Oklahoma is willing to help the tribe, but the death toll attracts the attention of J. Edgar Hoover who sends in an FBI team to solve the case.

The book unfolds in three distinct parts. The first part focuses on Mollie Burkhart and her family. Readers learn more about the history of the Osage as well as the dynamics within Mollie's family. This segment puts a human face on the history. It's impossible to read the remainder of the book without thinking of the atrocities that this family faced. I don't know how Mollie was able to survive through the heartbreak. There were moments when I had to take a break from this one as my heart hurt too much to carry on. It's not an easy thing to read. It hurts my heart to think of how evil some people can be. The second section of the book focuses on the investigation into the murders and revolves around Tom White, the FBI agent in charge. Tom White is certainly one of the men history needs to remember. His courage and tenacity were admirable traits. Lastly, the third section focuses on the author and his research process. He discusses visiting the Osage reservation and touring the locales mentioned in the book. 

While Mollie Burkhart got her answers, so many other Osage did not. There was not one grand plot behind all the deaths, but rather they were perpetrated by a variety of people. The losses still have lingering effects on the tribe even into modern times. I wish the Osage had never had to experience the "Reign of Terror". I don't understand how people can allow greed and corruption to fester to the point where they are willing to do anything to get their hands on money and goods.

In addition to learning a vast amount about the Osage and these horrific murders, I also learned about the early days of the FBI. The Osage murders would be the first murder case taken on by the bureau. It was not without its mistakes, but largely justice was served, at least concerning Mollie Burkhart. 

I highly recommend this book to those interested in historical nonfiction. I am always eager to learn about groups that haven't always had a voice in the narrative of American History. My heart and mind will never be the same after reading this one.


One Last Gripe: I don't have one.

Favorite Thing About This Book: Adding knowledge to my understanding of Native American cultures and histories

First Sentence: In April, millions of tiny flowers spread over the blackjack hills and vast prairies in the Osage territory of Oklahoma.



In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.

In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. The book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward Native Americans that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long. Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly riveting, but also emotionally devastating.

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